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Iowa Democratic Lawmakers Propose Police Reforms

ras smith
John Pemble
Rep. Ras Smith, D-Waterloo, speaks at a press conference at the Iowa Capitol on Thursday.

A group of Iowa Democratic lawmakers and black leaders proposed three policies Thursday to help prevent police violence as protests continue in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police officer.

They want to ban most police chokeholds, make it illegal to rehire officers fired for misconduct or excessive force, and ensure the attorney general and county attorneys can investigate and prosecute police misconduct.

Rep. Ras Smith, D-Waterloo, said no one law can end racism or inequities.

“But today we can begin to respond to the crisis, to bring justice to George Floyd, and work towards a day where no Iowan has to fear becoming another hashtag,” he said.

Smith said the Iowa Legislature, which is led by Republicans, should take action immediately as the 2020 legislative session could end within two weeks.

Minority impact statements for legislation and an anti-racial profiling bill have been proposed in recent years, but never passed.

“Let’s act now,” Smith said. “[The governor] said she would support passing that legislation in 2021, but like I said, let’s start today. Racial profiling will not wait until 2021 to take place.”

Yena Balekyani is a community activist who has been participating in recent protests against police brutality and racial injustice.

“Our lawmakers here have the responsibility to make sure that legislation represents and protects groups that for years have not had that privilege of protection,” Balekyani said.

She said no one should have to experience racial profiling and discrimination in 2020.

“I am holding you guys accountable. I will be here,” Balekyani said. “And if this is not passed, I will be in the streets, we will be out here every single night, until black lives matter again.”

With a legislative deadline approaching, Smith said he would try to attach the police reforms to other bills in the coming days.

House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, said in a statement that House Republicans are interested in working on addressing racial disparities in Iowa.

“I appreciate the proposals that the Democrats have brought forward today and look forward to seeing the actual language that they are proposing so we can try to find common ground,” Grassley said.

Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds was asked if she would try to get racial justice legislation passed before the session ends for the year. She committed to listening to people’s concerns, but did not provide an opinion on the police reforms proposed by Democrats.

“It doesn’t mean it can’t continue to move forward, but it also doesn’t mean if we can’t get it done in a week that we’re done,” Reynolds said. “We’re going to continue to have those conversations. We’re going to continue to address the concerns that we’re hearing from Iowans.”

She said she wants to take a holistic approach to systemic change. She mentioned policies she’s worked on to expand mental health services, STEM education and workforce training initiatives.

Reynolds also mentioned her push to restore voting rights to Iowans with felony convictions through a constitutional amendment. On Thursday, she signed a bill into law that would exclude some Iowans from automatic voting rights restoration. It was part of a compromise to convince Senate Republicans to approve the constitutional amendment.

Some Democrats and black activists have called the requirement for people with felony convictions to pay full victim restitution a “poll tax” reminiscent of voter suppression tactics used against African Americans in the past.

Reynolds said the policy balances “the rights of victims and the importance of redemption.”

Katarina Sostaric is IPR's State Government Reporter